One day a nurse noticed a piece of white paper in Bill Little’s hospital room.
It was covered with scrawled curse words.
Turns out, that piece of paper was one of the secrets behind Little’s tough and positive attitude as he endured the grueling aftermath of falling into a raging campfire.
He kept his cool during the extremely painful bandage changes for his severe burns. He never flinched, never complained.
Then, one day, he had to let it out.
When the nurses and doctors left his room and closed the door, he reached for the piece of paper and a pen.
“Instead of screaming out, I wrote it down,” Little said. “I’m Catholic and I’m Scotch. I was raised to just be happy and help people and try not to let anything get you down.”
That perspective won the hearts of many of the medical professionals who cared for Little during his 69 days at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
“Bill is a special guy,” said Charles Gibson, MD, an acute care surgeon with the Spectrum Health Regional Burn Center. “My hope is that he finds all the joy in the world out of life, because his spirit is so good for the world—and we need more people like him.”
Dr. Gibson served as an integral part of the team of doctors, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists and others who cared for Little.
Little will need to find a new normal, Dr. Gibson said, considering his burns resulted in him losing parts of all the fingers on his right hand.
‘I just went down’
It happened on May 30, 2020—Little’s 64th birthday.
Little, of Montague, Michigan, walked to his neighbors’ house to celebrate around their new fire pit.
Recovering from foot surgery that spring to fix a bunion and bone spurs, his foot still had some swelling, and he had just had a pin removed from his big toe a week before.
Soon after he arrived that evening, his neighbors stepped inside for a moment.
Little stood up to put another log on the fire.
“I hit my toe on the fire pit,” he said. “When I stubbed my toe, the pain made me nauseous and I just went down.”
His right hand landed in the fire. He struggled to push himself up out of the flames.
From there, everything’s a blur to Little, until he woke up in the intensive care unit.
Severe burns covered his right hand and parts of his arm and his torso, from his armpit to his hip and extending around to his back—22% of his body. The burns on his hand were so severe doctors had already cut his hand open to relieve pressure.
He said friends and family were shocked when they heard the news. Many of them refer to him as Chicago Bill, referring to the city where he lived for many years.
“I must have a thousand friends and everyone was saying prayers for me,” Little said.
During his two months and nine days in the hospital, Little would visit the operating room nine times for skin grafting and other procedures. A week and a half before he went home, he learned he would lose parts of his right hand.
Dr. Gibson said the team gave his hand the best shot they could.
“Considering how much we use our hands for everyday life, we really try to be very conservative about removing digits or operating on hands. We try to give them as much chance as possible to heal,” he said.
But Little’s burns were just too severe.
While Little’s disappointment was evident, he took the news as well as anyone could, Dr. Gibson said.
“I can’t imagine being as positive as he was if I were in the same situation—and that says lot about who he is,” Dr. Gibson said. “It’s a testament to his unwillingness to give up. He has an amazing perspective about things and I think that is going to serve him well.”
Little said losing his fingers has created challenges.
He is learning to write with his left hand and perform common household chores. He wonders if he will ever operate a chainsaw again, or hold a fishing reel.
“It changed my life immensely. It stopped me dead in my tracks,” he said. “It’s tough but everyone that knows me says, ‘You’re going to pull through this. You’re going to make it.’”
While Little’s determination inspired the medical team and other patients, even he had his moments.
“I cried with some of the nurses. I even cried with the surgeons,” Little said. “I cried when I left there because you get to know those people. I told them when I left, ‘I can’t remember everybody’s names but I’ll remember the masks.’”
Little speaks with fondness about the team that cared for him.
He developed a particular bond with Richard Wilcox, MD, a Spectrum Health burn care surgeon.
“He talked to me like he knew me for a long time,” Little said.
And Little will never forget what Joseph Gorvetzian, MD—a second-year plastic surgery resident on a burn rotation for two months—did for him in the wee hours of the morning one day.
As part of his treatment, Little had two treatments with a wound vac, a negative pressure suction device designed to help his skin grafts heal.
Dr. Gorvetzian said the vacs are prone to leaks, which can not only compromise the graft but also cause annoying beeping. That’s exactly what happened in the middle of one night on a graft that had already failed once.
Everyone at the hospital had done all they could to fix the wound vac.
“I went in at 1:30 in the morning and Bill was apologizing, saying ‘I’m sure you didn’t want to come in,’” Dr. Gorvetzian said. “It didn’t matter to me. All that mattered was that we did right for him.”
The resident doctor eventually found and fixed the leak. And that skin graft went on to heal—a big reason Little got released from the hospital when he did.
“Dr. Joe was pretty cool,” Little said. “I had those guys laughing all the time.”
And that’s true, according to Dr. Gorvetzian.
“Every time when I left his room, I would be laughing because he was such a character and had such a great attitude about what was going on,” he said. “It was always a treat to see him in the morning and find out what kind of shenanigans he had been up to.”
Little said he departed the hospital with much gratitude for Dr. Joe and the medical team.
Now at home, he’s performing his daily hand exercises, attending follow-up doctor appointments, applying salve and adapting to his “new normal.”
“I can’t thank those people enough,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Little has seen adversity.
In his late 20s, he went through the windshield in a severe car accident. He also suffered injuries in a bad crash while racing dirt bikes, which caused a burn on his leg from the exhaust pipe.
“I’ve had a couple of good doozies,” he said.
Those didn’t get him down then.
And this won’t either.
“I will make it work. That’s the kind of person I am,” Little said. “I will make this work. I’m not going to get depressed. I will make this work.”